Thursday, 3 February 2011

Paternity test had me fooled

First of February and I mistook it for April Fools Day. Paternity tests went on sale at Boots, making them the first UK high street retailer to do so.

I had this warm, fuzzy image of a young man shuffling towards a pharmacy counter. And then shuffling back. All the while he’s surreptitiously squinting up at the shelves looking for it. £30 and a red face later, he’s back at home. And a few minutes later emerges from the loo, “Honey, it’s blue. You’re pregnant.”

For a fleeting second, I thought the world as we knew it had changed. Not sci-fi type change, just a world where women still had the babies but the men could find out first - just like women do with a maternity test kit. Imagine being the first one to know. Imagine being the one to tell your partner. Imagine having to think about all the things you’d have to think about before telling anyone. Imagine having that responsibility first. Imagine if paternity meant the same thing for men that maternity means for women.

Except of course, my image was fleeting and wishful. Paternity tests don’t tell you you’re going to become a father. They help to confirm that you’re already a biological father to a particular child. How silly of me to even dream that a paternity test would be about care and not just about rights.

Matthew Taylor mused recently on his blog about whether extending paternity leave was a form of social engineering by the government. But paternity has already been socially engineered. Whereas maternity begins with conception, we’re already socially programmed to think that paternity begins only after the birth. Indeed, this presumption is also based on law.

The problem with this – for fathers, for children, for gender equality – is that all too often a mother’s early biological connection with a child is given as a reason for her to be the main and/or the best carer.

I’m not advocating that men should be given greater rights during pregnancy than women nor even that men should be able to have babies. That’s another discussion. What I am saying is that we need to think much more openly about the effect that our understandings of maternity and paternity have on the way we parent and care.